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  • The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age
  • Katherine Elkins
The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age. Joshua Landy and Michael Saler, eds. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009. Pp. xiii + 387. $60.00 (cloth).

Joshua Landy and Michael Saler have edited a book that confirms what many modernist scholars have long suspected: existing theories of modern re-enchantment need updating. Their careful and detailed critique of earlier theories of modern re-enchantment is compelling. It is, they claim, neither the ghostly relic of religion and myth (the binary argument), nor the oppressive ideological byproduct of a dialectical process that enchants in a way that is deceptive and dangerous (the dialectical argument). Instead, the editors write, the progressive disenchantment of the world has been accompanied from the start by its continual re-enchantment. This modern re-enchantment is thoroughly modern because it is both conscious and clear-sighted.

The work’s thirteen contributors articulate various aspects of this strategic re-enchantment in all its particularity. Many of the contributors focus on literature as a method of re-enchantment. Michael Saler argues that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s love of American detective stories goes hand in hand with his fascination with language games. For Wittgenstein, silliness has the power to break the bonds of philosophy’s rigid conceptual schema. The serial novel also re-enchants the [End Page 963] world, Robin Walz suggests. The fantastic stories of Ponson du Terrail’s protagonist Rocambole allow readers to enter a world whose illogicality proves wondrous. Joshua Landy, in a skillful reading of Mallarmé’s “Ses purs ongles,” shows how modern poetry enacts the re-enchantment it describes. The poem creates a world in which all contingency is banished because each word “is the only logical outcome of a self-imposed puzzle” (120).

Contemplation of nature also offers a modern re-enchantment of the world. Andrea Nightengale details how Thoreau responds to science’s dismissal of uncertain methods of knowing. For Thoreau, wonder in the face of the unknowability of nature allows for the re-enchantment of his world. William James, Linda Simon argues, also finds nature a source of re-enchantment. James believes that nature is “a jungle, where all things are provisional, half-fitted to each other, and untidy” (48). This untidiness is mirrored in James’s theory of a self that is multiple: material, social, and spiritual. The result of all this wildness is a freedom to invent and discover the world anew: individuals are empowered to interpret the world and revitalize it at any moment.

Nicholas Paige also explores an enchantment with the complexities of self. He makes a persuasive case for a revaluation of the historical rise of the fantastic which, he argues, needs to be understood as more powerful than realism’s ghostly other. The fantastic serves the crucial role of nurturing emerging representations of an irrational psyche. It also allows for the construction of an overtly fictional space that can produce bodily effects even as the mind resists its lure.

Many of these approaches reflect their authors shared interest in bodily experience, and this emphasis is mirrored in other contributor’s explorations even as they roam farther afield. Experiential knowledge remains a key source of strategic re-enchantment for the Catalan architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch who, as Maiken Umbach argues, turns architectural space into place by melding tradition and modernity. Michel Serres argues for the re-enchantment of listening, which affords an experience of the world both more inchoate and more wondrous when it bypasses language.

Modern politics also deems the body crucial to strategic re-enchantment. Dan Edelstein calls for a re-evaluation of Georges Sorel, whose ideas, he argues, were distorted by fascism. Sorel, he claims, disentangles utopia from myth by insisting that the future remains unknowable. While utopias (and the fascists who imagined them) focus on unknowable futures, myth is nonetheless crucial in the modern world because it creates a coherent and compelling vision as the basis for political action. Politics, Sorel maintains, must re-enchant by appealing to both mind and body, since reason alone is incapable of achieving revolutionary change.

Criticism also affords...


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